The true cost of perfect nails - is human trafficking behind your cut-price manicure?


Walk through any city centre in the UK and it’s difficult not to notice the very modern trend for quick and convenient beauty treatments. From blow dry bars to nail salons within department stores, eyebrow threading stands in shopping centres and salons offering 15 minute waxes, there are plenty of places women - and a growing number of men - can spruce themselves up on their lunchbreak from work, for a cost that is often a lot less than paying for a luxurious experience at a spa.

 But while these kinds of fast turnaround, affordably priced drop-in salons may be a godsend for those of us who are too busy to dedicate time to visiting a beauty parlour for a longer visit, their convenience and affordability may be masking a human cost that is easy to ignore.

 In 2013, a Sunday Times investigative journalist published an article revealing that many nail salons across the UK might be being staffed by illegal immigrants, trafficked from Vietnam by brutal kidnappers and forced to live in appalling conditions. The report contained distressing personal stories of those kidnapped from their home villages, or sold by well meaning family members fooled into thinking they were sending their loved ones off to a better life, and who ended up filing and polishing the nails of the UK’s monied classes for pennies a day, and in foul conditions. Some spoke of sexual attacks during the journey from Vietnam to the UK, others of the one day out of every two months they were allowed off work. Most were forced to live in homes with dozens of other trafficked people, driven to and from their place of work each day without any chance of escape.

 Many of the women who worked brutally long hours in fume-filled nail salons during the day found no relief or rest at night, instead being forced by their traffickers to work as prostitutes.

 According to the UN, human trafficking is the world’s second largest organised crime - after drug smuggling - and figures from the International Labour Organisation suggest traffickers pocket £21 billion a year from the business of forcing vulnerable people into pitifully paid labour.

 The trafficking of at-risk women from the Far East to work in the UK’s burgeoning nail salon sector is often referred to as modern day slavery, and the practice is something that those in the beauty industry are certainly aware of, even if they have little power to stop it.

 The British Association of Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology is one body that has spoken strongly about the human trafficking that could be supporting the modern day need for convenient beauty.

 On the organisation’s website, it states that around 2.5 million people are trafficked each year around the world - and many of these people end up here in the UK. Many trafficking victims, like those who end up working incredibly long hours in bad conditions in nail salons, will have been tricked with the promise of a new life, or have been kidnapped and sold by gangs.

 According to figures cited in the Sunday Times report, at least 90 salons were raided and fined nearly £700,000 in the five years from 2008 to 2013 for employing around 150 illegal immigrants, and Manchester was one of the cities with the biggest number of illegal employees. The article states that every immigrant found to be working illegally during the salon raids had a Vietnamese surname.

 Carolyne Cross, BABTAC & CIBTAC Chair, said that while the organisation is not set up to actively assist victims, it is vital for those working in the industry, and those who receive beauty treatments, to look out for the telltale signs of trafficking.


We do encourage both industry professionals and consumers to look out for the signs and work to report and prevent this suffering,” she said.


 With this in mind, what are the signs that someone may be being forced into working in a nail salon?

 BABTAC recommends those visiting nail salons look out for the following:


  • Staff are reluctant to chat to customers or reveal personal details
  • The workers live in the same premises as the nail bar
  • It seems as though employees are not allowed to leave the nail bar without their employer

 Key cases

Li Tan, trafficking victim

Christine Beddoe, former director of the children’s charity Ecpat UK, passed on a distressing testimony of a 15 year old Vietnamese girl, Li Tan, forced into prostitution and labour in the UK, which was included in the Sunday Times article. She was sold to traffickers by her uncle, who adopted her following her mother’s death.

 After travelling by van across China and Russia, the traffickers flew Li Tan to Prague. There she was loaded into a van packed with other immigrants, and driven to Britain, enduring gang rape at the hands of the other immigrants on the way.

 Li Tan ended up in a nail salon, where she said she earned “just enough money for noodles each night”. According to Li Tan’s testimony, she slept on the floor in the back of the salon, and was told she must pay back all of the thousands of pounds her uncle had spent to send her to the UK.

 She also spoke of regular rape and sexual abuse at the hands of different men who would visit the nail salon at night.

 Li Tan was taken into the care of social services after she arrived at a hospital six months pregnant, with signs of post traumatic stress disorder and suffering from a sexually transmitted disease.


Do Huan Nguyen, trafficker

Do Huan Nguyen was extradited to Hungary in 2010 following investigations into human trafficking. Nguyen was described as instrumental in the trafficking of more than 50 Vietnamese illegal immigrants, who would travel via Moscow to Hungary before being given makeovers to look like photographs in passports specifically stolen for the purpose of trafficking.

Many of the women trafficked by Nguyen are believed to have ended up working in nail bars.

The risks to customers

While the real victims in cases of human trafficking are of course those kidnapped from their homes or lured away by false promises of a comfortable life in the UK, customers who unwittingly visit nail salons and beauty parlours staffed by unqualified illegal immigrants also run the risk of  contracting infections, being left with nail or hand injuries, or being exposed to potentially harmful fumes or liquids.

So what are the main risks?

Methyl methacrylate

Methyl methacrylate, or MMA, was once widely used in the dental industry as a bonding agent for making crowns and bridges. In the 1960s and 1970s it became popular within the beauty industry as a bonding agent for acrylic nails, but due to its toxicity and the potential risks it poses - in its liquid state, MMA should only be used by qualified technicians, in a controlled laboratory environment - it has been banned in the US.

While not yet banned in the UK, MMA is only used in unregulated salons, and can leave people with severely damaged nails. Nails applied with MMA are incredibly difficult to remove, as the substance is almost completely insoluble, even when using acetone.

Many poorly run salons staffed by under-qualified workers will use MMA, as it is much cheaper than the safer alternative. One of the key signs that a salon uses MMA will be an overwhelmingly fruity smell on entering the salon.

Avoiding the risk


  • Ask your salon if they use MMA or EMA (EMA is designed for use with nails and is totally safe)
  • Ask them to show you the liquid they will use
  • If the nail technicians seem unsure of what they use, pick somewhere else


Identifying nails applied with MMA

Beauty website Salon Paradise says the following:


“MMA nail enhancements are very, very hard with a yellow tinge, a "fishy" odour, and a grainy texture”.


Nail drills

In unregulated, conveyor belt type nail salons, drills are often used to apply acrylic nails. Using drills on the nail bed is actually illegal, and these kinds of tools should only really be used on the acrylics themselves, or the nail tips.

Misuse of nail drills can leave permanent ridges in the nail bed - if a salon uses a drill this is a sure sign they also use MMA, as normal files are more than adequate for properly applied acrylic or false nails.


Avoiding the risk


  • Ask the salon if they use drills before making an appointment
  • If your existing salon uses drills, seek the advice of a qualified beauty therapist - damage done by drills can take months to put right
  • If a nail drill has been used on your nails, don't soak them in acetone to remove acrylics - this will cause a very painful burning feeling